Inmate’s organ donation request sparks debate

Ohio Gov. John R. Kasich temporarily stayed the execution of Ronald Phillips in November while medical experts assess the inmate’s request to donate his organs. Phillips was sentenced to death for the 1993 brutal rape and murder of 3-year-old Sheila Marie Evans, his girlfriend’s daughter.

“Ronald Phillips committed a heinous crime for which he will face the death penalty,” the governor said in a Nov. 13 statement. “I realize this is a bit of uncharted territory for Ohio, but if another life can be saved by his willingness to donate his organs and tissues then we should allow for that to happen.”

According to the governor’s office, Phillips’ non-vital organs could be removed if he is a viable donor to his mother or others awaiting transplants. After the procedure, he would be returned to death row to await his execution, rescheduled for July 2, 2014.

Ethical concerns

The stay has sparked ethical questions about inmates donating organs. Some have suggested allowing death-row inmates to donate organs could influence a court’s decision on issuing the death penalty.

The Catholic Church encourages organ donation, but teaches that the death penalty is rarely justified.

The Church “does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor,” according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 2267). Blessed John Paul II wrote in Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”) that the death penalty could only be justified in rare cases.

Kevin Werner, executive director of Ohioans to Stop Executions, said his organization would not take a position on the stay, “but we’re happy Mr. Phillips wasn’t executed.”

“Is it positive? It cuts both ways,” Werner said of the decision, noting that the governor still maintains that Phillips should be executed.

“In principle, there do not appear to be fundamental moral objections to allowing death-row prisoners to donate their own organs after death, as long as such donations are freely made, without undue pressure or compulsion,” Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, told Our Sunday Visitor.

If the judicial system “incentivized” donations among prisoners, say by staying their death sentence for a period, that could be a problem, he said.

“Even when prisoners are not on death row, it strikes me as morally problematic to offer reduced sentences in exchange for organ or bone-marrow donations,” he said.

Various states have considered promoting organ donation among inmates. Some have even contemplated shortened sentences in exchange for organ or bone-marrow donations.

“The cardinal principle must be that organ donation should occur freely and as an act of generosity, and care must be taken to prevent coercive or manipulative situations from developing,” Father Pacholczyk said.

Dignity of life issue

The Catholic Conference of Ohio does not plan to take a position on the governor’s stay of Ronald Phillips execution, said Carolyn Jurkowitz, executive director of the conference.

“There are medical and technical issues involved in this particular case that go beyond the conference’s stance regarding the death penalty and organ donation,” she told OSV. “For many years, it has been the practice of the Ohio bishops to petition the governor, prior to every execution, that he not impose the death penalty, but consider life imprisonment without parole, instead.”

The bishops of Ohio took a public stand against the death penalty in 2011. “Just punishment can occur without resorting to the death penalty. Our Church teachings consider the death penalty to be wrong in almost all cases,” the bishops wrote. “Every human being is a child of God, no matter what sins the person commits. Every human life has infinite dignity because it is designed by God to be immortal.”

Capital punishment “curtails one of the greatest goods of all — namely, life itself — and constitutes a presumed form of civil satisfaction for the crimes committed,” Father Pacholczyk said.

Yet being on death row does not preclude the possibility of exercising “lesser liberties,” like donating organs, he added. Those executed by the state may express their desires for burial site, funeral wishes or have a personal will and testament.

Hope for rehabilitation

Some, upon hearing that Phillips wanted to donate his organs to his mother and his sister, have said it should not be allowed because his crimes were so grave. He should not be allowed to “redeem himself” by making this gift of his organs, it has been argued.

“However, the ultimate purpose of a judicial system cannot be to offer merely crushing punitive measures, even for the most heinous crimes, nor to prevent charitable or redemptive acts from occurring,” Father Pacholczyk said.

While Phillips would like to give his kidney to his mother, he would also like to donate his heart to his sister. That won’t happen, though, because donations of vital organs “have not been allowed during U.S. executions because of ethical issues,” according to the Death Penalty Information Center website.

Delaware allowed a death-row inmate to donate a kidney to his mother in 1995, according to the center, though Florida previously denied a similar request for organ donation. Texas allows general prisoners to donate non-vital organs, but not those on death row.

The purpose of the judicial system, Father Pacholczyk said, is “to provide appropriately tailored punishments in the hope that some kind of rehabilitation may possibly transpire.”

Punishments “would, at a minimum, deter future criminal behavior and, more broadly, lead toward deeper human conversion and redemption,” he said. “The charitable act of donating one’s organs after death could potentially be involved in such a process in the life of an inmate.”

J.D. Long-Garcia writes from Arizona.